Argentina, Destinations, Featured Places, Photography

Just Dance: Finding Authentic Tango in Buenos Aires

April 4, 2012

Long before we booked our tickets to South America, I had bookmarked this beautiful video, Milongas…The Seduction of Tango, by photographer Tewfic El-Sawy:

If you have the time, push play and experience a taste of the finer side of Tango in Buenos Aires.

I longed for this kind of visual experience once we landed in Argentina. On the other hand, Ted and I found ourselves wary at the thought of joining up with most Tango Tour operations in town for a variety of reasons:

A) We suck at dancing together. Maybe it was a case of sour grapes?

B) “Tango, tango, tango!” seemed like a screeching broken record playing any time the city’s name came up in conversation before the trip. Maybe we were too hipster (read: prideful) to want to give in to the common tourist trap? (Besides, wouldn’t it be more ironic if we just watched the free show at Plaza Dorrego and called it good enough?)

C) There were so many possibilities to choose from within the city, it felt overwhelming to know who to book with if we were going to do it right.

When we were invited to join Ilusion Tango for a private visit to a Milonga where Porteños (Buenos Aires natives) and committed visitors alike were dancing the night away, we donned our dress clothes and headed downtown, unsure of what we would find.

Ilusions Tangos’ founder, Paula Pandol, met us at the door with a smile and assisted us in getting through the entry point and into the Sports Club by Day turned Dance Hall by Night. The atmosphere was anything but what I would’ve expected: instead of a flash stage or intimidating hall, we walked past old-style diner tables facing street side and through a doorway leading to a back room with an open floor surrounded by tables dressed with white and orange cloths and flickering little candles.

We found the back room populated with a mishmash of dancers: easy going couples alongside dressy pairs, tall and short, bald and permed, old and young…

Though comfortable in my easy going dress, I was pierced with hyper-awareness of my utilitarian black travel flats by all the beautiful spike heeled shoes.

We took our seats at the far side of the floor, and settled in just as the music began, while Paula began our lesson on the history of Tango and proper signals, queues, and unspoken rules of the Milonga dance culture. We learned about the common styles of Tango, and “Aha!” moments came as she explained the physical and cultural influences that shaped the variety in present day versions of the dance.

Note to the ladies: the etiquette of the Milonga dictates that a woman without her heels on is out of the running for invitations to dance. No sweat for this gal: I was a happy observer.

Another note for you gentlemen who may someday look for a dance partner: if you walk up to the lady’s table to ask for a dance, you’ve already lost. There must first be eye contact and obvious acceptance of your silent invitation before the first footfall of physical approach.

The nuance of expression and the skill of dance are so beautifully woven into the Tango.

By the end of the night, Ted and I – two dance floor fighters – both wanted to learn.

Paula proved a lovely dancer herself, slipping off her flats about half way through our evening and donning heels to give a demonstration on the dance floor.

Paula began Tango seven years ago at the age of twenty and was teaching lessons by age twenty-three. “The first time you start [dancing tango], you can’t stop,” she explained.

A group of Canadian students once came to Buenos Aires and toured a Milonga with her; they made a second trip all the way back to Argentina five months later to enlist her services for private lessons.

They’d been bitten by the bug.

Paula is in her third year of operating Ilusion Tango in Buenos Aires, and she has bright plans for the future. Much the same way that she grew her hometown company by visiting Milongas all across the city as a dancer and choosing the best locations to introduce to visitors, she has spent time overseas researching hotbeds of Tango culture.

The dance’s international following in other charming cities has inspired her to dream of authentic Ilusion Tango Tours in other such metropolitan destinations as Rio, Paris, and Barcelona. She’s even recently visited Italy to research future tour spots. Paula works with a close group of dancers and tour guides who share her same love of the dance and attention to detail and commitment to history and culture.

The night carried on at an enjoyable tempo: as each Tango song played, couples would dance artfully, passionately around the room in a flowing circle. Some moved with fast steps, following the melody, others danced slow steps, following the singer’s tune.

At the end of a song, the movement stopped, and as the next began, couples lingered in conversation, filling the room with words left unspoken during the silent dance.

At the end of each set of Tango songs, a mid century rock’n’roll tune cleared the floor, sending dancers out to the room’s perimeter for a drink and a laugh or perhaps a kiss.

Entranced by such a woven mix of movement and music, we passed the hours.

Our evening concluded with a beautiful feature performed by two talented, if rather unexpectedly imperfect looking dancers. Instead of two skinny professionals in the latest fashions, a humble and smiling middle aged couple entered the spotlight and performed three beautiful dances before a rapt audience.

In a way, the couple embodied the same spirit we encountered with Ilusion Tango: pure joy and love of the dance, unexpectedly real and free from pretense.

A truly memorable experience in Buenos Aires.

With the night’s inspiration in mind, perhaps we’ll make another date on the dance floor after all.

And hey, no excuses in the future: we hear Portland, Oregon boasts a fantastic Tango scene, too…

For fellow travelers wishing to see Tango in Buenos Aires, we recommend the following options for a range of tastes and budgets:

Plaza Dorrego: Quick Satisfaction for the Camera, Easy on the Pocketbook
Price: Free* (tip recommended)
Details: Arrive at San Telmo’s Plaza Dorrego almost any day of the week and stand at the corner of the square to take in scenes of a duo moving up and down the 5 foot x 25 foot stretch of cardboard laid over cobble stones (*participate in the act by tossing bills or coins into the dancers’ outstretched weathered hat as they work the crowd)
Upgrade: Order a cold beer or hot cafe con leche and take the time to sit and relax at one of the many umbrellaed tables. On one hand, it’s nothing special. On the other, you’re IN BUENOS AIRES!

Cafe Tortoni: Touristy for a Reason
Price: 40 Pesos per person (US $9.20+/-)
Details: Call ahead and reserve a spot for the show, take in a choreographed dance performed onstage and enjoy a classic beverage in the city’s oldest cafe.
Upgrade: There’s no minimum consumption designated for show attendees, but why not splurge on something sweet from the menu?

Ilusion Tango: Personalized, Authentic, and Full of Soul
Price: US $45-$50 per person (depending on group size) + Milonga Entry and Drinks (an additional US $10+/- and up)
Details: The Alberto Podestá tour includes a late evening visit to a true Milonga (Tango dance venue) with a Tango guide and a full evening of Milonga etiquette and insights, Tango history, music, dancing, and plenty of opportunity for photography.
Upgrades: The Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese packages include options for accompanying Tango dancers, private dance lessons, drinks, empanadas, and souvenirs.

This post brought to you by the kind sponsorship of Ilusion Tango; all opinions expressed are completely our own. For more favorites from our month in Buenos Aires, see If…Then Buenos Aires: Trendy Hole in the Wall adventures around town.

Have you ever danced the Tango? Who’s up for group lessons once we’re back in Portland?

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  • Reply Kaylea Foster April 4, 2012 at 7:37 am

    I’m up for a group lesson when you’re back in Portland!

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:42 am

      Done deal! : ) I may need to do some heels shopping. Want to join? Miss you, friend! I’m so thankful that you were able to come visit. Hope it gave you a new spring in your step when you returned home to Oregon…

  • Reply Heather W April 4, 2012 at 7:57 am

    LOVE these photos, just stunning!

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:43 am

      Heather, can you convince Micah to come out dancing?? Oh my gosh, we’ve got to try. ; )

  • Reply Heather Espana April 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    How. FUN!

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:45 am

      I think you would’ve loved the atmosphere. And the music!

  • Reply Cindy Buck April 7, 2012 at 6:57 am

    Wow, eloquently written and beautifully photographed . . . thank you again, so much, for bringing the world to me. Just beautiful. I think you two should get on that dance floor and have someone take your picture and post it – that would be Wonderful to see. :) I love you both!!!! <3

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:46 am

      Love you, too, Aunt Cindy : ) We’ll try to get more pictures of the two of us in the same shot! In the meantime, we want to see some of the wedding (hint, hint!). <3

  • Reply CJ April 7, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Wow….. Absolutely stunning. I love the way that you describe things, and make, even me think about tango lessons. ;-)

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:49 am

      xoxo : ) That’s just it — the experience was so inspiring…I had no desire before, and now I think it would be lovely to learn. Such a difference between the show and the true dance…

  • Reply heidi April 7, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    I love this post! I have always loved tango and would love to take lessons (too bad I don’t live in Portland!) My friend Ann’s sister has really gotten into the Tango scene in San Francisco and is apparently quite the dancer after just a couple years of lessons. Your photos are stunning – job well done with the low light and fast motion! Very evocative.

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:54 am

      Thanks, Heidi. I just took my little 50mm lens and managed to squish enough details into the frame. I didn’t get many full-length shots, but the close ups were sweet and the light was fun to experiment with. Still learning my way around the camera ; ) Very cool about your friend’s sister in San Fran… It’ll be fun to get back to Portland and learn a bit more about what’s going on in the city. Sounds like it’s quite the community all around the world!

  • Reply Kieu ~ GQ trippin April 9, 2012 at 8:23 am

    Gerard took tango lessons while we were there.. We were terrible, LOL. But the show was amazing! Tango is such a beautiful dance. LOVE catching it in La Boca and throughout the city. Glad you guys gave it a whirl!

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:55 am

      Haha, that’s what I’m afraid of — the anguish of sticking with lessons until we’d be good enough to bother showing our faces on the dance floor ; ) So cool that you guys gave it a try!

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  • Reply Billie Jo April 14, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Alright Bethany… you promised pictures of you wearing all of the cultural garb…. Where are they girl?? I miss you guys so much! Can’t wait for you to come home!!!

    • Reply twoOregonians April 16, 2012 at 4:56 am

      I know, I know!!! I keep thinking of it, but we haven’t really had the perfect chance, yet. (But c’mon, isn’t head to toe black outdoor gear cultural garb from Patagonia?) Don’t worry, though. I’ll keep looking for the perfect outfit, and you’ll be sure to see pictures. Love ya! xoxo

  • Reply Lisa April 25, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I enjoyed the photos and was interested to learn that they accept an invite from eye contact first. It looks like you had a great experience.

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